Senator Burr’s Shortcomings Are Showing

The Republican leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee sided with President Trump in his conflict with John Brennan with a statement that called his own judgment into question.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Senator Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, leads the only credible congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

It is getting harder to have confidence in his leadership.

Last week, The New York Times published an op-ed by John Brennan, the Obama administration national-security official who presided over extrajudicial drone killings and made false statements to Congress about CIA spying on its congressional overseers during his tenure.

Lately, he has been criticizing President Donald Trump, who decided to revoke his ability to view classified information. Brennan claimed that the decision to do so was politically motivated. But that wasn’t the focus of his op-ed.

Mostly, he criticizes Trump for the July 2016 news conference where he encouraged Russia to find the emails of his opponent Hillary Clinton.

Candidate Trump’s exact words:

I will tell you this: Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens. That’ll be next.

In Brennan’s telling, “Mr. Trump was not only encouraging a foreign nation to collect intelligence against a United States citizen”—so far, so good—“but also openly authorizing his followers to work with our primary global adversary against his political opponent.” Does that follow?

I don’t think so.

“Such a public clarion call certainly makes one wonder what Mr. Trump privately encouraged his advisers to do—and what they actually did—to win the election,” Brennan continues, returning to sound argument.

Finally, Brennan says that he follows the news, and that there are many suspicious interactions between Trump’s associates and Russians. He questions whether “the collusion”—that is, Team Trump’s known attempts to benefit from Russian help on campaign matters—ever crossed the line into not just immoral, but illegal behavior:

While I had deep insight into Russian activities during the 2016 election, I now am aware—thanks to the reporting of an open and free press—of many more of the highly suspicious dalliances of some American citizens with people affiliated with the Russian intelligence services. Mr. Trump’s claims of no collusion are, in a word, hogwash.

The only questions that remain are whether the collusion that took place constituted criminally liable conspiracy, whether obstruction of justice occurred to cover up any collusion or conspiracy, and how many members of “Trump Incorporated” attempted to defraud the government by laundering and concealing the movement of money into their pockets. A jury is about to deliberate bank and tax fraud charges against one of those people, Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman. And the campaign’s former deputy chairman, Rick Gates, has pleaded guilty to financial fraud and lying to investigators.

Enter Burr, who inserted himself into the conflict after the op-ed was published, and explicitly sided with Trump in the matter.

He did so with this statement:

Director Brennan’s recent statements purport to know as fact that the Trump campaign colluded with a foreign power. If Director Brennan’s statement is based on intelligence he received while still leading the CIA, why didn’t he include it in the Intelligence Community Assessment released in 2017? If his statement is based on intelligence he has seen since leaving office, it constitutes an intelligence breach.

If he has some other personal knowledge of or evidence of collusion, it should be disclosed to the Special Counsel, not The New York Times. If, however, Director Brennan’s statement is purely political and based on conjecture, the president has full authority to revoke his security clearance as head of the Executive Branch.

This statement reflects poorly on Burr. To flag its flaws in ascending order:

First, Brennan published his op-ed after his security clearance was revoked. Yet Burr cites the op-ed as if it provides the justification for Trump revoking the security clearance.

Second, Brennan is explicit about why he believes that Trump colluded with a foreign power: He cites that July 2016 news conference and “highly suspicious dalliances of some American citizens with people affiliated with the Russian intelligence services” that he learned about “thanks to the reporting of an open and free press.” One can dispute whether that actually constitutes “collusion,” a term with no legal definition, but nothing Brennan cites is classified.

Third, consider Burr’s statement that if Brennan, now a private citizen, has “some other personal knowledge of or evidence of collusion”—knowledge or evidence of collusion other than classified information—“it should be disclosed to the Special Counsel, not The New York Times.”

I can imagine a scenario where quietly going to the special counsel with evidence of collusion with Russia would be the right call for a time. But in many scenarios, the public should be told immediately about proof that their president colluded with a foreign power. In many scenarios, going to the Times with evidence would be a service.

For many years, I’ve argued that overclassification, and the existence of an insular elite that keeps too many truths from voters, undermines democracy. What better illustration that the status quo is hopelessly corrupted than a senator who leads the committee most conversant in classified material insisting that if the president colluded with a foreign power and evidence emerges proving as much, it should obviously be kept from the public?

Fourth, and most damning, Burr concludes by telling us when he believes a president is justified in revoking a former CIA director’s security clearance: not if he is leaking classified information, or poses a threat to national security, or simply has no public-service need for classified information—no, Burr thinks the president is authorized to revoke security clearances in retaliation for political speech.

I don’t want Brennan to have a security clearance. Were I president, I’d revoke it! But there is no more dubious, constitutionally illegitimate reason for revoking it than retaliation against protected political speech.

As Marcy Wheeler, one of the foremost analysts of the various Russia investigations, puts it in a post that offers a deeper dive into Burr’s statement, “Case law suggests that a President does have the authority to strip Brennan’s clearance (though a Brennan challenge, or even more easily, a Bruce Ohr challenge, might establish new limits to that authority). But that authority has no relationship to the claimed political or conjectural nature of Brennan’s comments … Burr suggests punishing political speech is in some way intimately tied to the authority therein.”

She concludes:

The Chair of the Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, effectively asserted that he is one of the few authorities with the right to say, based off what his committee does in private, whether Trump conspired with Russia or not, and that any citizen deigning to weigh in based off the public evidence may be properly disciplined by the President.

The statement goes a long way to discredit the investigation his committee is doing, a real blow to his staffers’ success at bridging any partisan divide. Most importantly, because it so badly gets the epistemology of an attack that targeted all Americans wrong, it raises real questions about Burr’s understanding of the Russian attack at issue.

The 2018 midterms will decide whether congressional investigations into a foreign power’s interference in U.S. elections will continue to be led by Burr and his counterpart in the House, Representative Devin Nunes, or by Democratic replacements. Now that there is ample reason to mistrust the judgment of both incumbent intelligence-committee chairmen beyond their partisan loyalties, I hope for their replacement by a loyal opposition.